Melting-Pot Modernism

Melting-Pot Modernism

Sarah Wilson
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Melting-Pot Modernism
    Book Description:

    Between 1891 and 1920 more than 18 million immigrants entered the United States. While many Americans responded to this influx by proposing immigration restriction or large-scale "Americanization" campaigns, a few others, figures such as Jane Addams and John Dewey, adopted the image of the melting pot to oppose such measures. These Progressives imagined assimilation as a multidirectional process, in which both native-born and immigrants contributed their cultural gifts to a communal fund.

    Melting-Pot Modernism reveals the richly aesthetic nature of assimilation at the turn of the twentieth century, focusing on questions of the individual's relation to culture, the protection of vulnerable populations, the sharing of cultural heritages, and the far-reaching effects of free-market thinking. By tracing the melting-pot impulse toward merging and cross-fertilization through the writings of Henry James, James Weldon Johnson, Willa Cather, and Gertrude Stein, as well as through the autobiography, sociology, and social commentary of their era, Sarah Wilson makes a new connection between the ideological ferment of the Progressive era and the literary experimentation of modernism.

    Wilson puts literary analysis at the service of intellectual history, showing that literary modes of thought and expression both shaped and were shaped by debates over cultural assimilation. Exploring the depth and nuance of an earlier moment's commitment to cultural inclusiveness, Melting-Pot Modernism gives new meaning to American struggles to imaginatively encompass difference-and to the central place of literary interpretation in understanding such struggles.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5941-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction. “A Form which Makes the Intelligible Answer Recede”
    (pp. 1-13)

    Immigration both transfixed and transformed the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and during the several decades that followed. In 1905, as Henry James chronicled his return to the United States, the number of immigrants exceeded one million per year for the first time in the nation’s history; between 1891 and 1920, over 18 million foreign-born migrants entered the United States.¹ The effects of this massive immigration were observed, recorded, and widely discussed, in the United States and elsewhere: a governmental commission assigned to investigate the immigration “problem” published more than forty volumes of findings on the...

  5. Chapter 1 The Melting Pot: “Assimilation to One Another”
    (pp. 14-50)

    In 1915, the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey wrote to Horace Kallen that, although he “never did care for the melting pot metaphor,” he did feel that “genuine assimilation to one another not to Anglo-Saxondom—seems to be essential to an American.”¹ Dewey’s ambivalence here is instructive. Despite his (and Kallen’s) distaste for the metaphor, he uses the term “melting pot” to evoke “genuine assimilation,” an assimilation distinctly “to one another” and “not to Anglo-Saxondom.” This understanding of the term did not go without saying in the volatile teens: Dewey had to spell it out. Kallen had just published his famous...

  6. Chapter 2 Henry James in the “Intellectual Pot-au-feu”
    (pp. 51-90)

    Henry James seems an unlikely melting-pot modernist. Born in 1843 and expatriated in 1866, he did not fully experience the waves of immigration that gave rise to melting-pot discourse at the turn of the twentieth century. Though The American Scene (1907), which recounts his travels through the United States in 1904–1905, represents one of the most perceptive accounts of the transformations the nation was undergoing at the turn of the century, it alone cannot justify James’s inclusion as a melting-pot modernist. For this reason James is in fact an ideal figure with which to begin this study; his example...

  7. Chapter 3 James Weldon Johnson’s Integrationist Chameleonism
    (pp. 91-127)

    James Weldon Johnson was committed to racial integration. His fidelity to this objective, which he saw as entailing the construction of a racially egalitarian American state and culture, was unmatched among African American intellectuals of his generation. This integrationism represents the melting-pot impetus in Progressive-era race relations; it has, most famously, been decried by Harold Cruse as preventing the emergence of an autonomous ethnic culture, but it has also been associated with “New Negro” self-deception by critics such as David Levering Lewis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.¹ More recently, however, George Hutchinson (who provides a helpful guide to critical debates...

  8. Chapter 4 Recollection, Reform, and “Broken Time” in Willa Cather
    (pp. 128-164)

    James Weldon Johnson’s integrationism relied on a logic shared by a great deal of melting-pot writing: he turned to cultural activities of the past to construct parameters for present cultural syntheses. Like so many immigrant autobiographers of the Progressive era, Johnson saw cultural synthesis as entailing not the repression of personal and group histories, but their broader dissemination. The better that white audiences understood, and self-consciously adopted, the formal devices of the spirituals, his logic went, the better (and more equitably) assimilation would work. However, such a view was hardly uniformly agreed upon: in the context of immigration, for example,...

  9. Chapter 5 Gertrude Stein and “Individual Anything”
    (pp. 165-197)

    Gertrude Stein’s experimental text The Making of Americans, which she wrote intermittently from 1903 through 1911, firmly situates her within the immigration debates of the turn of the century (it was based on her own family’s immigrant heritage). The Making of Americans, published in 1925, represents a paradigmatic melting-pot text: in it, a story of immigration becomes the occasion for Stein’s radical modernist deformation of conventional narratives. The novel also takes on a central problem of melting-pot thinking: the indispensability of the individual to these theories of cultural mixture and merging. While James, Johnson, and Cather all touched on this...

  10. Afterword. Melting-Pot Histories of the Present
    (pp. 198-202)

    The majority of literary and historical studies today are influenced by a “cultural turn”—a turn that has reconfigured the academy over the course of the last twenty to thirty years and that uses a range of broadly conceived artistic materials to pursue a variety of intellectual projects. The melting pot represents an important early version of such a cultural turn, and though it is by no means the only origin-point of this contemporary cultural turn, it does instructively model some ways in which a cultural turn might offer access to “the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 203-228)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 229-242)
  13. Index
    (pp. 243-250)